The next big foreign policy idea?

Business Times - 22 Apr 2008

In search of the Next Big Foreign Policy Idea

Will a tripolar global system emerge if the US were to lose its global hegemonic position?


HISTORIAN Paul Kennedy's 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000' (New York: Random House, 1987), which was published during the final years of the Cold War, succeeded in doing to geo-politics what Mao's Little Red Book had done to the thoughts of the communist Chinese leader.

It helped popularise the somewhat esoteric topic of discussion in stuffy gentlemen's clubs in Victorian London or Bismarck's Berlin and turned it into a trendy topic of conversation among more diverse American and international audiences.

Rising to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, the heavy 'Rise and Fall' (close to 700 pages) became a book that members of the cool chattering class were required to read (or at least, buy).

Moreover, forecasting the political and economic decline (relatively speaking) of the US (got it wrong in 1987) and the then Soviet Union (got it right) and the rise (again, relatively speaking) of Japan (wrong), the then European Economic Community (about right), and China (right), 'Rise and Fall' seemed to set the standard for the new and popular genre of books on the Next Big Foreign Policy Idea for the post-Cold War world/globalisation era.

From Francis Fukuyama's 'The End of History and the Last Man' (New York: The Free Press, 1992), through Samuel Huntington's 'The Clash of Civilizations' and the 'Remaking of World Order' (New York: Simon & Schuster 1993), and Thomas Friedman's 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree' (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999) to the 'Coming Anarchy' (Robert Kaplan) and 'Future Perfect' (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge), scholars and pundits have been bombarding us with various predictions about global prosperity or mass starvation, international peace or world wars, unipolarity or multipolarity, and the rise or fall of nationalism, religiosity, ethnicity, racism, and tribalism.

Enter Parag Khanna, the director of the Global Governance Initiative in the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation, with his Next Big Foreign Policy Thing in 'The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order' (New York: Random House, 2008).

Erase Unipolarism and the Third World and add Tripolarity and the Second World to your foreign policy vocabulary. It seems that we are moving towards a tripolar global system dominated by three great geo-strategic and geo-economic powers or empires - the United States, the European Union, and China - that will be competing in the coming years for the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of the emerging nation-states and markets in Central Asia, Latin America, the Pacific Rim and the Middle East.

These emerging nation-states make up what Mr Khanna describes as the Second World. It is this mostly peaceful competition over markets and investments - not a cold or a hot war - in the Second World - Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Azerbaijan are some of the countries in transition - that will be the focus of this tripolar contest. This competition will shape the global political, economic military balance of power in the 21st century, according to Mr Khanna.

The US, the EU and China represent three distinct diplomatic styles - coalition, consensus, and consultation respectively - that could appeal to the Second World.

America has its 'coalitions of the willing' style of conducting foreign policy that negotiates diplomatic alignments based on transactional, issue-by-issue basis, and offers military protection and aid.

The EU aggregates countries in a manner more resembling a corporate merger than a political conquest, providing them with economic association and political reforms, with net gains in both trade and territory from North Africa to the Caucasus.

And China, which draws on ancient Confucian values, promotes a consultative pattern of behaviour that emphasises areas of greatest agreement while tabling issues lacking accord for more propitious occasions. It offers to potential partners in the Second World 'full-service, condition-free relationship'.

Against the backdrop of the Iraq War and the ensuing anti-American sentiment in many parts of the Second World, the US finds itself now in a weakened position in the tripolar competition. Mr Khanna thus thinks that its post-Cold War unipolar moment is coming to an end and that America will have to share this century with China and the EU.

According to the futuristic scenarios drawn up by Mr Khanna, China's search for energy resources and markets for its products will be driving its growing presence on America's strategic backyard in Latin America, while the EU is getting ready to replace the US as the leading power in the broader Middle East.

In fact, Mr Khanna warns that continuing military overstretch and declining economic power and quality of life threaten to transform the US from a global power into a member of the less prestigious club of the Second World. The war of terrorism will end and China and the EU - and not the US - could emerge as the global winners, he warns.

There are many holes in Mr Khanna's grand theory. He seems to be too pessimistic about the ability of India to evolve into a global power and that of Russia to regain its former status. And he fails to highlight the many obstacles facing China and, especially, the EU on the road to global leadership.

While he provides lively reports and sophisticated analyses about the growing geo-economic competition between the US, China and the EU in the emerging regions of the world, his vision of a tripolar international system remains nothing more than a creative speculation at this stage.

While the US is probably going to lose its global hegemonic position, it will take a long time before we'll find whether its decline will lead to a rise of a new bipolarity or multipolarity, to stability or anarchy, or to clashes between nations, religions or civilisations.

In short, we are probably going to continue to search for quite a while for the New Big Foreign Policy Idea.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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